By Eric Kohn | Indiewire November 20, 2013 at 10:15AM
Michel Gondry is no stranger to experimentation. In the past five years, he has made a big studio adaptation of "The Green Hornet," a documentary about his aunt called "The Thorn in the Heart," the real time story of some Queens high schoolers on the bus "The We and the I," and the fantasy drama "Mood Indigo." Even so, his latest completed project is unique: Solely consisting of a conversation between the filmmaker and noted linguist Noam Chomsky, "Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?" relies on Gondry's hand drawn animations and voiceover to explore Chomsky's rich theories of language. The movie, which closes the DOC NYC festival this week, will be released by IFC Films on Friday. Gondry spoke to Indiewire about his experience with the project and how it compares to both his recent work as well as his earlier music videos.
In the movie, you state a very personal investment in exploring Chomsky's ideas. But after working on it for so long, did it ever start to feel like a chore?
That's the challenge with the set of every film. But here, the work itself was completely different because I I had a lot of freedom. And when I started drawing, most of the time I had an idea in mind, but it gets readjusted when I'm drawing. This is something that I can't really do in a (narrative) feature film, so it was really different for this project.
How much of your relationship with Chomsky is not seen in the film?
Well, I saw him four or five times maybe over two or three years before proposing the idea. A lot of time my ambition was to understand him and to get him to understand me. Sometimes, I would share some ideas and I would try to get him to commend them. My ambition was to go into his mind -- it was difficult, as you can see in the film.
Eventually, you screened the film for students at MIT. What, if any, scientific aims did you have?
I was interested in his particular work, of course. I follow it with great interest. But I thought I could express myself more through his scientific work and that was not done before. There was no visual sense to his work -- and that was my interest for this film.
Early in the film, you tell Chomsky that you're intimated by his intellect. Did that change over the course of your conversations?
Not really, because I am still intimidated by him, and I don't have one percent -- or one thousandth -- of his knowledge. So I feel overwhelmed, but the truth is that I work in a different field. It's an advantage: There is no sense of competition and I feel that I can still bring something to his work using animation because there is a complexity in animation. Even though I use a simple style, there is some complexity to it: You have 24 drawings [per second], and you reach another type of depth, but that's not the equivalent of [the ideas] he's going to talk about. That is very complex and profound; with illustrations, I can't always reach this level of complexity, but it's how I feel I can. It's not a competition, of course, but it made me feel adequate, at least.
Given how long the animation process took you, how much room did you have to improvise?
Once I had an idea I just had to carry it out -- but sometimes, I was not sure where it was going. What I would do -- not all the time but most of the time -- was I would play a line of his dialogue, pick a segment and play it in a loop to influence the drawings some of the animations. Because they were abstract, it allowed me to illustrate what I was saying. I would not portray that by trying to explain it in a illustrative manner because it was too narrative. The abstraction helped me not to betray what I was saying or what he was saying, because I think I could get it wrong and that would be bad.
About your animation style: You just do use a Bolex camera and draw each frame by hand? No computers at all?
Yeah, like a normal film. It is my own personal way. I don't want to say modern technology is bad. I don't want that to be the subject. It's just that, for me, it's very practical and it's true I'm very influenced by or inspired by the work of people like Norman McLaren. I also love Len Lye, a New Zealand animator. The early abstract animators are very important to me. I grew up watching them. They have a very strong connection to sound and image, which sort of inspired me when I started to do music videos. I decided I wanted to make visual music.